15. Family Life - with Vitality and Personality!
In the 1960s, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the Church made a "preferential option" for the poor. This really included all of us, since spiritually we are all poor. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI after him, have made it clear that the Church's special option today is for the family, on which depends the health and cohesion of society. Throughout the preceding pages, we have seen that the family is the natural school of love and understanding, of the spirit of give and take, of forgiveness... And of many other things, among them that unique and irreplaceable sex education which takes place between brothers and sisters as in their arguments and fights they gradually mull over what really makes boys and girls different and begin to sense some of the deeper and truly human differences and complementarities between the sexes. This and much else is the potential of the family.
But the family today is not just neglected and marginalized, as so often happens with the poor; it is under siege. The family is under siege today, and it is weak. It is taking a battering and in many places is going under. So many parents are aware of the situation; so many do not know what to do. Supernaturally they have to do a lot: to pray more, rely more on the sacrament of marriage and its particular sacramental graces. And, humanly, they have to give a lot to their family: not material things, but personality. This is the point I want to make: parents today have to give more personality - much more personality - to their family.
I like to put it as a question to parents: Is yours a family with personality? I don't mean is your house distinctive, with superior architecture or better furniture... Does your family stand out from others, from those of your neighbors, not for its comfort or for the number and quality of its gadgets, but for its vitality, for its human style, for the quality of its family life?
Are your children attracted more to neighboring houses, or are neighboring children drawn more to yours? Or are yours and theirs drawn more to the nearest malls? As happens to families that are a little more than places to sleep or be fed or watch TV in, but don't draw or inspire or wake people up to life, because they lack the personality to do it.
To influence - or to be influenced
What does the idea of a family with (or without) personality suggest? One way of defining a strong personality in an individual is to say that the person influences (for good or for bad) more than he or she is influenced. A family with a "weak personality" is going to be influenced, and perhaps dominated, by the values or anti-values surrounding it. So a question all concerned parents need to put directly to themselves is: does our family influence the social atmosphere surrounding it, or is it more influenced by it? Not the social atmosphere of a town or city as a whole, but the immediate atmosphere of relatives, neighbours and friends, ours and our childrens'? Is the nature and character and quality of our family being shaped more and more in the way we, its founders, want, or is it being manipulated and exploited by others?
When I was a boy I don't think I ever thought about whether the family I grew up in had personality. I just liked it and felt at home there. And I doubt my parents ever asked themselves the question I have suggested: what sort of personality does our family have? They did not have to, because, thank God, all of the families that were our friends had plenty of life, plenty of children, plenty of values. There was no TV then of course. We went to the movies once or twice a week (and that was a sort of special family occasion to look forward to), but for the most part we - the boys and the girls - just mixed together and did normal things together. And the normal things were almost always good things. It just happened that way. It doesn't so easily just happen that way today.
Today we are all being influenced - and not for good - on a massive scale. We need to realize it and to find the human force, along with the grace of God, to withstand these negative and often dehumanizing influences. We are a market, and the marketeers want us to be as captive a market as possible. They are trying to manipulate us, especially young people. It is not a moment to be passive, least of all a moment for parental passivity.
The real power of home schooling
What can parents do about it? They can turn their family back into what it is meant to be - a school! For it is indeed the first natural school.
Before public education became the norm, the vast majority of parents literally had to educate their children, bring them up, themselves. While that might be an idea to return to, few parents are in a position to undertake total home teaching, imparting to their children full courses in Literature, Physics and so on. Leave that for the established schools. What parents have to teach is values: not just abstract values, but incarnated values reflected not only through the moral principles that the parents hold but in the way they act, in the whole atmosphere in which the family lives. Parents have to be the source not mainly of knowledge and not only of life, but also of inspiration, ideals, independence and strength for their children.
One hundred years ago, and maybe even fifty, parents in the West could reasonably enough trust the standards their children received at educational establishments outside the home. This whole situation has been profoundly modified over the last few decades in a way that transcends the question of the values absorbed in school. It is not only that the outlook of young people is molded nowadays more by the atmosphere of the recreational or sporting centers they frequent than by what they hear in the classroom. We have gone far beyond that. The real "school" which controls the making or unmaking of social and personal values is constituted by the media; and this school is more and more dominantly present within the home itself.
The progression from films to TV to videos to the internet means that social values can no longer be considered an outside factor with regard to family life. Through the media, the social culture makes its way daily into practically all modern homes, profoundly influencing the values (if any) that are being inculcated there. It has become the home school, displacing - if there is not enough family personality to counter it - the family itself as the real domestic school.
The attraction of evil
If you happened to see Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of the Christ", you may have been struck by that androgynous figure of evil or the Devil that he introduced, with a face that was in some way handsome or attractive but spooky... Possibly you also saw a TV interview where Gibson was asked why, if he wished to represent evil, he gave it a powerful and even attractive face. And his answer, clearly backed by his own life experience: "because evil does attract. But the more of it you let into yourself, the emptier you become".
Evil is attractive. However, it is anything but vital; it deadens you, draining life and leaving you empty. It is persuasive, but not inspiring; on the contrary it sucks every good inspiration or ideal or hope out of you. I don't know if you are a J.K. Rawling fan or not, but there are passages in the Harry Potter novels that can make people think. Do you remember the Dementors: "Dementors... glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory, will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself - soulless and evil. You'll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life" .
The experience of good
That is why it is so important for each life to be backed by good experiences; and the most important ones are those had in the family: being loved despite not being too lovable, being forgiven and being taught to forgive, being corrected justly (and sometimes not altogether justly) and learning to accept it. Having a good time and learning to help others have a good time. If such family experiences are strong, they originate a capital that even the most prodigal son or daughter (because prodigals there will be) cannot fully dissipate. With God's grace, it will in the end prove enough to draw a person home to Heaven.
But such a family atmosphere has to be built up. It is a wonderful task. Yet it naturally takes an effort. It is built on small but original little memories, where my family remains not just the place of cokes and raiding the fridge, but of Mom's apple pie or home-made cookies or of Dad's reminiscences - and by those examples I mean almost anything, just so long as they are an expression of Mom's or Dad's personal way of giving time and showing thought and affection.
But what family atmosphere or personality - none at all! - is being built in those anonymous and mass-produced homes where all sit passively together as an homogenized audience before the same TV program, or each goes off and gets lost separately watching his or her favorite program, or wandering in virtual isolation as an internet browser? Where is the life and love that must be at the very heart of the family? What do we have there but families drained of vitality, depersonalized families, faceless families? And how many of them there are today!
The more TV is watched in a family, the more indistinguishable that family is from the family next door or down the street, and the less personality it has as a family. In such a nondescript and insipid home, what is there of worth to be remembered? And yet the family has to be a place to remain cherished in one's memories. If evil is making its way into one's house, then parents must try to stop it as much as they can, with their own self-control to begin with. But their response has to be more forceful and more positive still. When evil is making its way into the home, it is there, in the home itself, that parents have to produce even more goodness.
This is the challenge. It is no small one, but there is every reason to tackle it with optimism and confidence - based precisely on the attraction of goodness, and on the power of God to help us create it. I like to recall one of most marvelous phrases of St. Thomas Aquinas: bonum potentius est quam malum : "good is stronger than evil"; and, in the end, it attracts more. Parents have to put it there, in the home. The closer they are to God, who is Goodness itself, the more inspiration and help they will get.
A family is a school of life and of love. But if it does not have a certain minimum vigour, normally expressed also in terms of size, it is not likely that individualism and selfishness - the enemies of life worth living and worth loving - will have much of their sharp edges rubbed off; nor is it likely that the family itself will have a human personality and impact to draw other families around it to the source of its ideals. In his Letter to Families of 1994, John Paul II insisted: "Families today have too little "human" life. There is a shortage of people with whom to create and share the common good; and yet that good by its nature demands to be created and shared with others: bonum est diffusivum sui: 'good is diffusive of itself'" (no. 10).
Control or inventiveness?
So, what to do about the values and especially the anti-values picked up in a TV-internet dominated home atmosphere? Remain passive? No. Some concerned parents may try to govern or prevent the entry to the home of these anti-values. Filters will help; but the task is not easy, and we wouldn't have gotten very far if in the end all we had produced was a thoroughly sanitized but sterile home where nothing vigorous or fruitful can develop. Besides, anything that smacks of blanket censorship can provoke a negative reaction in young people if they feel they are subject to a control that probably their friends are free from.
These negative reactions may be avoided or at least reduced by means of regular family councils where, among other matters, the programs to be seen during the coming week are decided on; perhaps with a final say reserved to the parents. When borderline cases are allowed, it would then be specially important not only for one or both parents to be present, but also to have an open discussion at the end of the program where its positive and negative values are discussed. Properly handled, these sessions can develop an adequate critical appreciation in the children and even put them in a position not only to defend the family practice among their peers but also to get them to take part in it.
But - many parents will say - I'm not a film critic. You have to be! You have to be the critical conscience of your children, or better, the formator, the stimulator, of their consciences. The full positive effect may only come later on: "Yes, my Dad and Mom had a conscience about that sort of stuff. And I too need to have one".
And another point needs to be made clear. It is not enough for today's parents to act now just as their own parents may have acted, even if they, like me, had the great fortune of having very good parents. Times have changed. The efforts and sacrifices that may have been enough for parents twenty or forty or sixty years ago, to put into building their families, are no longer enough. They have to put more.
It is good, but not enough, to pray together. Families have to be together, to talk and argue together, to plan and originate things together. This is what is meant by developing families with personality: creating a forceful, interesting, and attractive family atmosphere or family life, expressed not only in care, friendship, loyalty and solidarity, but also in activities that both develop talents in the children and, above all, keep them interested.
What sort of activities? It would probably be a mistake to over-specify them. They will have to be looked for, tried out, improved, discarded and replaced by others, and carried out either simply by the family members themselves or, more reasonably and ideally, in conjunction with other like-minded families. Amateur theatrics, musical groups, sports mini-competitions, chess championships, debates, life-skills, biking, family-movie nights, community-help initiatives... are a few of the activities that come to mind. Inventiveness will discover many others, and family personality will be all the richer for having its inventiveness tested.
Parents can know they have come up with a winner - for the time being - when their house begins to attract other children, who come because "at So-and-so's one always has a good time". This sort of endeavor is helped by having a large family. It is equally helped by having a large number of like-minded friends. You need a network of friendly strong families to sustain this culture of your own home. But in the end what is most decisive is the initiative and dedication of the parents themselves.
Generosity creates strength
A child is a gift of God that sometimes it is not possible to receive; just as at times it is not possible to receive all of his other gifts. But then we should miss them, feel the deprivation involved in not being able to have them.
G.K Chesterton was one of those truly remarkable men from whom we always have something to learn. His Autobiography tells more about his philosophy than it gives details of his adult life. But it does say a lot about his childhood and his family background - which was the forging of his life. Chesterton's mother was one of 25 children. She married Edward Chesterton, a man of a mild Victorian Protestantism, but of extraordinary inventiveness whose first hobby and enthusiasm was his family.
Maisie Ward, in her biography of Chesterton, writes: "These two [his parents] had no fear of life; they belonged to a generation which cheerfully created a home and brought fresh life into being. In doing it, they did a thousand other things, so that the home they made was full of vital energies for the children who were to grow up in it. Gilbert recalls his father as a man of a dozen hobbies, his study as a place where these hobbies formed strata of exciting products, awakening youthful covetousness in the matter of a new paint-box, satisfying youthful imagination by the production of a toy theatre... Edward Chesterton did not use up his mental powers in the family business [he inherited from his father]" . She leaves us to draw the obvious conclusion; he kept a large portion of those powers to spend them on the business of his family.
In Chesterton's own words: "The old-fashioned Englishman, like my father, sold houses for his living but filled his own house with his life" . It costs money to fill one's house with things, good things. It costs more to put one's life there, to fill one's home with one's self, not with one's whims and likes and dislikes but with one's self-gift, with one's dedication, with one's small, silly, love-inspired games and do-it-yourself entertainments. If it is really love that inspires them, they gradually build up the capital that can save many lives from final bankruptcy.
In the first chapter of St. Luke's Gospel we are told of what the mission of John the Baptist will be. One phrase should hold our attention because it is so pertinent, so incisive, so challenging: "He will turn the hearts of parents towards their children". This is the first step today in the renewal of the family. When, in today's situation of need and crisis, parents' hearts are really turned towards their children, God's inspiration and help will not be lacking and they will become parents of families that are sources of goodness strong enough to counter and overcome the evil that presents itself so aggressively today, families that show a vitality and personality which attract and inspire - far more than the poverty and impersonality of contemporary family life or whatever remains of it.